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INTERVIEW - Mass texting and 50,000 volunteers - how India moved a million people to safety

by Annie Banerji | @anniebanerji | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 16 May 2019 15:06 GMT

Stranded passengers rest inside a railway station after trains between Kolkata and Odisha were cancelled ahead of Cyclone Fani, in Kolkata, India, May 3, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner's team mobilised 50,000 volunteers, police officers, boats, buses and trains to evacuate more than a million people to shelters

By Annie Banerji

NEW DELHI, May 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From mass texting to mobilising 50,000 volunteers, the Indian official who masterminded the evacuation of more than a million people revealed on Thursday how they were moved from the path of a deadly cyclone.

The state of Odisha on India's east coast has won global praise for the speed and scale of its response to Cyclone Fani, which struck on May 3 packing winds of about 200 km (124 miles) an hour.

It was the strongest summer cyclone to hit the state in 43 years, but the death toll was limited to 64 because authorities managed to evacuate vast numbers of people from its path.

Two decades ago, 10,000 people were killed when a super-cyclone battered the coast of Odisha.

"We believe that every life is precious, so we maximised our efforts to ensure minimum destruction and no human casualties," Odisha's Special Relief Commissioner Bishnupada Sethi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"And these are the unique things we did that really helped in a big way."

Sethi's team started making an action plan a week in advance to spare one of India's poorest states, which is home to 46 million people and highly exposed to cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.

His team mobilised 50,000 volunteers, emergency workers, police officers, boats, buses and trains to evacuate more than a million people living in low-lying areas to shelters.

Sirens, loudspeakers and TV ads blared warnings. In a national first, Odisha used digital mobile radios and sent more than 20 million text messages - each tailored to specific areas - to provide information including details of nearest shelters.

Convincing people to evacuate was a big challenge as many thought the warnings were a "false alarm", Sethi said.

"The very fact that not a single fisherman was injured during this calamity really showed that we reached out to almost everyone, particularly the most vulnerable people," he added.


Sethi's efforts led to "one of the biggest human evacuations in history", according to the state chief minister - an effort that has been lauded by disaster management experts and the U.N.

In the wake of the disaster, text messages are again being used to inform people about compensation, provide advice, and give contact numbers of local officials.

"(Otherwise) the lack of effective communication can lead to a lot of unrest," said Sethi, who learned about disaster management working for the United Nations Development Programme.

Odisha state authorities have used the expertise gained from bitter experiences such as the 1999 disaster to advise the national government on reconstruction, planning, and how buildings that can better withstand natural disasters, he said.

"We should have disaster resilient villages, disaster resilient cities, and if we can do this, the recovery can be very fast."

Climate change is a key concern. With nearly 500 km of coastline, Odisha is home to many communities that depend on the sea and is particularly vulnerable to the effects of global warming - from rising sea levels to stronger storms.

"We are very worried because many of our coastal areas are being lost to the sea," said Sethi, who wants the state to focus on awareness programmes, insurance policies, regular drills and disaster-resilient infrastructure and jobs.

"We have to be mentally prepared to accept the increasing challenges of climate change and work at all levels, otherwise it will be very difficult," he said.

(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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